a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

Unity School of Christianity

by Jeremy Rapport

a 2009 issue of <i>Daily Word</i>
a 2009 issue of Daily Word

“Always have a deep sense of connection to the past, a subversive memory that constitutes wind at your back. You are who you are because somebody loved you, somebody cared for you, somebody attended to you. Make sure that love flows through you, that’s what it means to keep love on the one.”
– Cornel West and Bootsy Collins, “Freedumb,” The Funk Capital of the World (2011)

Sometime in 1886 a woman named Myrtle Fillmore attended a lecture by the Christian Science practitioner Eugene B. Weeks. Myrtle suffered from numerous physical infirmities, including tuberculosis and incessant hemorrhoids, and it was in part these maladies that brought her to Weeks’ lecture. Her husband Charles, a Kansas City real estate man, left the event unimpressed, but Myrtle was inspired by this affirmation: “I am a child of God and so I do not inherit illness.” After several months of prayer and repetition of that affirmation, Myrtle believed that she had healed herself of her afflictions. She used a new form of knowledge to recreate her relationship with the divine and, consequentially, to recreate her relationship with her body. Scholars of American religion now usually call that knowledge “New Thought.”

Eventually Myrtle convinced Charles of what she had learned. He would then use the techniques to heal himself of the long-term effects of a childhood hip and leg injury. Together with Myrtle, he would begin a healing practice, treating people in the Kansas City area with their New Thought techniques. By 1890, Charles’ real estate business had begun to decline, and their healing practice had experienced some success. They decided to publish a magazine, first titled Modern Thought but soon becoming Unity Magazine, and with that act of print culture they inaugurated what would soon be known as the Unity School of Christianity. Unity claimed, at least in its early years, that individuals possessed spiritual union with the divine if and when they possessed physical well-being in the material world. It became Myrtle and Charles Fillmore’s mission to create and propagate a community focused on such a union. And their mission worked, as prayer groups begat churches, which begat associations, which begat the denominational structure that Unity operates by today.

The Fillmores were also especially able to align their emerging Protestant community with market forces, and to that end they quickly institutionalized their healing experiences in order to have the widest reach possible. The magazine started as a sort of Reader’s Digest of the New Thought movement. In their thought the Fillmores incorporated many early-twentieth century Protestant practices and norms, including prayer meetings, educational facilities, and a focus on the Bible as a source of religious authority. As the movement continued to develop, other people involved with Unity created a ministers’ association to authorize ministerial licensure and standardize the movement’s teachings. Other early bodily practices, such as vegetarianism and (briefly and obliquely) sexual abstinence, focused practitioners on recreating the material body as a spiritual body. While Unity was not unique in any of its recommendations, its fusion of metaphysical ideas and Protestant practices was. Myrtle and Charles Fillmore were American spiritual seekers who recognized and appreciated their past, their culture, and the role of community in authenticating experience.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James insisted that the individual’s feelings were the root of religion and that the tenets, rituals, and institutions of religion were but later additions that could only echo the true experience. For James, the real religious experience is ineffable, noetic, transient, and passive, all characteristics that could only be verified by the individual claiming the experience. What is fascinating about Unity is the way that it connected individual rituals with community contexts, how it conjoined the priesthood of all believers with a highly individuated metaphysics. In some sense, Unity sought to institutionalize the kinds of experiences so celebrated in James’ diagnosis of the healthy-minded.

The making of community is to me a fascinating and complicated element of any description of spirituality. Do contemporary American spiritual seekers enact spirituality by forming communities? I think one can make a convincing argument that the various new paradigm communities foster a contemporary American spirituality not unlike the Fillmores. Unitarian Universalists and liberal Mennonites qualify as spiritual seekers who are concerned with their communities and their relationships with the surrounding culture. In fact, I suspect that many of the members of more conventional religious groups would insist upon the very spiritual nature of their religious lives. Courtney Bender’s The New Metaphysicals (2010) demonstrates how even those seekers who most disavow institutional life do so on the premise of previous institutional conceptions and organizational structures.

The popular understanding of American spirituality is the claim that the authentic discovery of one’s relationship with the larger world is a project entirely undertaken by an autonomous individual who freely chooses any philosophy or practice that seems to fit their particular life journey. For many spiritual seekers—those religious “nones” who confuse sociological survey—community itself is anathema to authentic religious experience. One need only observe the continuing use of the extremely problematic concept of “brainwashing” in reference to religious communities with which a person disagrees to understand the extent to which Americans believe that authentic religious experience can only be had or adjudicated by an individual independent of social pressure or community ritual. Spirituality is a proxy for our vision of who we wish to be, and today autonomy seems to be the superior ambition. Yet even as this is so, communities do perpetuate themselves, on terms not merely religious but also spiritual.

Today, Unity churches might house Protestant-style Sunday services, complete with choirs and sermons, Buddhist meditation groups, self-help practices, youth groups, community service initiatives, singles’ nights, and ad hoc discussion groups on any number of spiritual topics, frequently all under the same roof and under the auspices of a trained and licensed Unity minister. A sophisticated web site allows individuals to explore Unity on their own, while also presenting opportunities for community interactions. For most Unity adherents, the spiritual life is one of seeking and exploration, but one done under the aegis of a community of faith.